One of those films which I quite enjoyed as it was unspooling, but which began to rankle with me almost as soon as it ended. On the surface, it's about a troubled young man, Lars, who has serious difficulties with communication (people keep saying he's fine, which is patently not true, though since the film is set in a Midwestern town with Scandinavian blood in most veins, perhaps they're simply being stoic), and who provides Ryan Gosling with an opportunity to do some acting of the tics-and-hesitations variety, much less subtle than his usual skilled work (thankfully, though, we're a long way from I Am Sam-era Sean Penn).
Really, though, the film's main aim is to craft a portrait of the small town as the perfect, socially-harmonious location (the ironic thing is that the film most often held up as the ne plus ultra of the genre, It's A Wonderful Life, has a strikingly dark core), where all races (yes, we have multi-lingual communication and parties attended by a virtual kaleidoscope of local residents) work in harmony, and where even the strangest afflictions are gently tolerated. Of course, in a way, the town's method for dealing with psychological trouble is more old-fashioned than new age (and you could argue that allowing the troubled to remain part of the community rather than locking them up in an asylum is a lot more humane), but the film insists on the population's modern tolerance in so many other respects that it's hard to give it credit on this score.
It's a shame, because there is an idea here, an exploration of a deep, bone-chilling loneliness, that's very compelling - the more so for the fact that such loneliness could exist in an apparently functional community. Of course, no-one comments on the fact that it's only when a fellow-resident goes completely off the rails that the community feels compelled to assist, while they ultimately seem to spend less time caring for Lars than they do for the blow-up doll who becomes the unlikely object of his thwarted affections. To the film's credit, however, although religion is an important aspect of Lars's self-experssion, it doesn't take the easy route of blaming his predicament on a moralizing church environment; this isn't the Lars (von Trier) of Breaking the Waves, but rather the Lars who experiences some of his most understanding treatment from his fellow parishioners, and the film's portrait of the impact of the church is strikingly positive.